Young guns target Edinburgh derby success
Hibernian and Hearts meet on Saturday for the 40th time in the Scottish Premier League and while the Edinburgh derby is steeped in history and tradition, this particular edition is likely to be dominated by youth - a common theme in the SPL these days.
Hibs have impressed in their last couple of games - one-goal defeats to first Celtic and then Rangers – and they have shown signs of re-capturing the sort of form that saw them sporadically occupy second place in the league at the start of the season. John Hughes's side at least looked a shoe-in for third and were cruising along until a dip of form in mid-February saw them drop off the pace considerably.
Successive defeats to the Old Firm have seen Hibs overtaken in the race for Europa League football by Motherwell, who conquered Hearts last week, but the green and white side of Edinburgh now have the perfect chance to re-assert themselves against their city rivals.
The average age of the Hibs side that lost to Rangers last week was just 25 and the youngest player in the starting line-up was 20-year-old defender Paul Hanlon. It has been a steep learning curve for the Scotland Under-19 and Under-21 international since he made his first team debut more than two years ago.
Opportunities were scarce under former boss Mixu Paatelainen and he was sent out on an unsuccessful loan to St Johnstone, where he made just two league appearances. But under Hughes, Hanlon has blossomed into the composed defender his potential suggested he could become.
Now, he is hoping he can help guide Hibs past Hearts this weekend and back into continental competition. "It's a massive game," Hanlon told Soccernet. "Coming towards the end of the season, we're pushing to try and get a European place and a win at the weekend would help that. We know we've got three tough matches to go but if we can get a good result at the weekend then that should push us on.
"Old Firm games are big but derbies are really special. The whole city look forward to the derbies and this is a huge game for both clubs and their fans. We played well the last two games but just didn't get anything from it. We've started to pick things up I think, we just need to get the confidence right back up and hopefully we can do that this weekend."
Hanlon was given an extended run in the team when first-choice centre-back Sol Bamba was on African Nations Cup duty with Ivory Coast, but found himself out in the cold again despite impressing as a deputy. Lately he has been back in the side again, and despite reports that Scotland manager Craig Levein is monitoring his progress closely, Hanlon insists he is fully concentrated on his development with Hibs.
"As a player you just want to play well and keep yourself in the team. I've played the last couple of games now so hopefully I can play well and keep myself in there again for the remaining games and looking ahead to next season. I've just got to try get as many games as I can for Hibs and if you do well you'll get noticed, but at this moment in time I'm focusing on helping us play well the last three games of the season and see where we go from there.
"European qualification is a massive thing for this club and it's what we are looking to achieve from the start of every season. We've got three games to do that. As a player as well, you always want to be playing at the highest level so competing in Europe is only going to be good for you as a player."
Aiming to put a halt to Hibernian's burning European ambitions will be a talented young Hearts side, who have recovered from an abysmal start to the season and the subsequent sacking of coach Csaba Lazlo, to drag themselves back up to the top half of the SPL table.
Hearts could boast an even more inexperienced side than Hibs on their last outing, as a starting line-up with the average age of 24 crashed 2-0 to Motherwell. Missing from the disappointing home reverse was influential midfielder Eggert Jonsson, who was suspended after a red card in the previous game against Rangers.
21-year-old Iceland international Jonsson has enjoyed a fantastic campaign for the Jambos and was recently rewarded for his impressive displays this season when he scooped the club's Young Player of the Year award. Jonsson, though, is a relative veteran for a player of his age, having been a key part of the first team-squad for three seasons.
He made his debut under Valdas Ivanauskas in 2006, but was brought to the club as a 16-year old from his native Iceland during the tenure of George Burley. Leaving his family and friends behind, Jonsson was determined to pursue a career in football and played his way through the Hearts youth teams and into first-team to contention.
"For a sixteen year old, it is a hard step but when I was younger it was always my dream to be a footballer and once I got the chance to do that with Hearts there was never another option," Jonsson told Soccernet. "It was a hard thing to leave home but it made me stronger as a person and as a player as well. It gives you a stronger personality and it helps you on the pitch – I have got no regrets about coming to Scotland. I've been in Edinburgh for six years, it is a lovely city and people say I am a quarter Scottish now! I managed to progress through the youth team, get myself into the first team and now hopefully I can keep improving."
After finishing third last season, Hearts were expected to push on and try to mount the sort of challenge they mustered in 2005-06 when they finished second to become the first side to break the Old Firm's monopoly on the top two since Motherwell in 1995.
But Lazlo was unable to replicate the results of his debut season at Tynecastle and Hearts suffered a miserable start to the campaign. Lazlo was sacked and former boss Jim Jeffries took the reins, inspiring a turnaround in fortunes as the Jambos began to climb up the table.
Jonsson has played under a staggering seven different managers since first arriving at the club, and while he recognises that the regular changes have been disruptive, he believes that, in Jeffries, they now have the perfect man to lead them.
"I wouldn't be able to tell you myself how many managers there have been. Sometimes it is difficult, and last year when we had the same manager from the start to the finish and it helped to give us that balance. Obviously, things changed again this year after we had a poor start but we've got Jim Jeffries now who is a Hearts man through and through - he knows what he's doing. When he was here before he achieved great things and he and his team of coaches will definitely be able to get us up for the game [against Hibs]. It's important for them and us to get the win."
Hearts have not lost to Hibs this season, drawing with them home and away, before winning the second home fixture 2-1 at Tynecastle last month thanks to goals from Andrew Driver and Gary Glen. And now Jonsson is ready to return to the starting line-up at Easter Road and guide the Jambos to an unbeaten campaign against their rivals.
"It will be a massive game for both teams, we're both fighting to get into Europe and this is the last derby game of the season, both teams will be doing their best to try and get the win for the fans. We started the season really badly, got one point in October and were close to the bottom of the league. But we've managed to get ourselves together and will finish in the top half of the league. We've still got three games to go and we're hoping to get into Europe."